An intriguing examination of the ground, which “holds the wild world in place.”
Books about single topics (salt, cod, blood) have become increasingly popular, and environmental journalist Bogard (Creative Nonfiction/James Madison Univ.; The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013, etc.) contributes an expert if unsettling account of the “living ground.” In the author’s expansive view, the ground is whatever lies under our feet, and he explores the many ways humans exploit it until, ultimately, they pave it. As Bogard notes, “the amount of concrete being laid every year is probably twenty-five tons for every person in the world.” In chapters on Manhattan, London, and Mexico City, the author describes life on and under the pavement, chronicling his interviews with activists trying to preserve bits of nature. Much of America’s past remains in the earth; the author toured Civil War sites in northern Virginia and Gettysburg, where bones and artifacts continue to turn up until spreading commerce seals them over. America’s greatest ground cover (after concrete and floors) is grass, a massive consumer of water and pesticides. Bogard also examines abuse below the ground—i.e., fracking. America’s leading crop, corn, grows in what is not so much soil as a chemical soup of fertilizer, chemicals, and pesticides free of weeds but also of small mammals, insects, invertebrates, and birds. Ironically, industrial corn farming is a money-loser; our taxes subsidize it. Writers decrying destructive agriculture are required to find and admire an organic farm, and Bogard does his duty. He describes a flock of sandhill cranes, a dazzling sight; however, like all migratory birds, they are dwindling in numbers. The author also interviewed individuals fighting exploitation and traditional native people who constantly demonstrate their respect for nature.
Islands of hope appear regularly in this insightful, wide-ranging, but mostly painful chronicle of our relations with terra firma.